Aram Khachaturian's ballet score Spartacus got a boost in the 1970s when the BBC used an excerpt from "Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia" as the theme to their TV series "The Onedin Line." This was a show about ships, and the men who go down to sea in them, and it had nothing to do with rebellious slaves in ancient Rome. Few people noticed the oddity. This just goes to show that Khachaturian's ballet will not be helpful to history buffs, and certainly not to those with an interest in what the Romans and their slaves were listening to at orgies and other events, both public and private, two millennia ago. Spartacus is as Russian as borscht and the gulags, but it is none for the worse for that.
Many conductors have taken a selection of numbers from this ballet and called it a suite. As a matter of fact, Khachaturian put together three ballet suites from numbers of his own choosing, and that is what is recorded here - these, then, are the "authorized" Spartacus suites. The first two contain the best material. Suite #1 closes with the rip-snorting "Dance of the Gaditanae and Victory of Spartacus," and Suite #2 opens with the aforementioned "Adagio." All three suites stand on their own, but they also work back to back, although chronological order gets thrown out the window if one does so, because Suite #3 is comprised of music from early in the ballet. (The entire ballet finally has appeared on CD, on the Capriccio label, if you are interested.) The plot emphasizes Bacchanaleia and combat, not love, poetry, or other "finer things in life," so it should come as no surprise that Khachaturian's score is more athletic than mellow. Now that I mention it, many of the faster numbers would work perfectly as an accompaniment for floor gymnastics, and the even faster ones (there's quite a bit of oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah in this score) seem intended for a kind of Russian can-can. It is easy to make fun of some of Spartacus's more vulgar moments, but all in all, it's an adorable score, and even if it doesn't get your limbs moving it will make your pulse race, and sedentary exercise is better than none.
That's fine by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, because their violin section is thin and not as capable of supporting a Big Tune as other orchestras that have recorded this music are. Rhythmically, however, they are right on, and one really can't criticize their rousing playing. Tjeknavorian is the right man to conduct this music, as earlier AS&V releases have shown. He doesn't apologize for Khachaturian's moments of banality, but neither does he compound the composer's lack of subtlety with gaucheries of his own. He likes the music, he takes it seriously, and his podium technique is strong… who could ask for more? The engineering will challenge your equipment, and your neighbors' tolerance.
Copyright © 2000, Raymond Tuttle